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Safety protection – then vs. now: Fire at Kings Cross

In the second article in this short series, Ramtech’s Content Marketing Manager Jon Bennett looks at how safety protection has evolved over time. This time he focuses on the King’s Cross fire in London, which took place in the late 1980s. Would or could this event still happen now?


It’s a Wednesday evening in winter in the UK capital – 18th November 1987 to be precise. Commuters are making their way home across London, and as usual it’s a busy evening at King’s Cross St Pancras tube station – one of the major hubs of the London Underground. In fact, it has platforms for the Metropolitan, Circle, Hammersmith & City, Northern line City branch, Piccadilly, and Victoria lines, making it one of the most used on the underground network.

Despite all the changes in the capital since the end of World War Two, some of the tube network was operating with largely outdated features. At King’s Cross St Pancras tube station, this included wooden escalators, dating back to approximately the 1940s. This seemingly normal piece of equipment, used probably by millions of people over its lifetime, was to cause one of the capital’s biggest disasters in recent history.

A simple match

In 1984, smoking was banned on all London Underground trains. After a fire at Oxford Circus a year later, the ban was extended to all underground stations too. However, it was common at the time that smokers would light their cigarettes on the way out of the station, discarding the matches on the ticket hall floor and the stairs.

At around 19:30, a discarded, still burning match fell down the side of a moving escalator. A combination of grease and rubbish from day-to-day movement (tickets, hair, rat fur etc.) under the escalator on its running tracks allowed this tiny fire from the match to spread rapidly. The fire brigade was called just 6 minutes after commuters first alerted the British Transport Police to the fire.
Initial fire extinguisher use failed to do anything as the fire was burning under the escalator, as it was impossible to reach it. Water fog equipment was available, but no one on site had been trained in its operation.

By 19:42, the whole escalator was on fire. This resulted in superheated gas rising to the top of the escalator shaft, where it became trapped by the ceiling. The gas hit around twenty layers of old paint, which began absorbing the heat. Three minutes later a flashover (ignition of combustible materials) and a stream of flame shot up to the ticket hall, filling it with black smoke and high temperatures. Unfortunately, this killed or seriously injured many who hadn’t by this stage evacuated out of the ticket hall. Those below the escalator level managed to escape on trains to safety.

Over 150 fire fighters attended the scene and the fire was declared out in the early hours of the 19th of November. In total, thirty-one people lost their lives, nineteen had serious injuries and around eighty others were injured.

Would it happen now?

Many things changed following the disaster and the public inquiry that followed. Interestingly, aside from the factors mentioned previously in this article, the angle (30°) of the escalators was discovered to be important too. The flashover investigation resulted in the discovery of the ‘trench effect’ which was totally unknown before the fire. This had directly caused the flashover. Whilst this could still take place on subways around the world, many changes occurred on the London Underground network as a result of the devastating fire.

One of the first things to happen was the removal of wood from stations, including from escalators and panelling. The last wooden escalator was removed in 2014. Smoking was completely outlawed everywhere on the London Underground network just a few days after the fire. Heat detectors and sprinklers were fitted under escalators. Training of staff was improved and a radio system was introduced for quicker communication.

Ten years after the fire, a large amount of safety improvement had been introduced including CCTV, advanced fire detection systems and the removal of any hazardous materials. The fire even led to better equipment for fire fighters in the UK – yellow plastic trousers that melted in the intense heat and rubber gloves that resulted in poor hand movement were replaced with more effective clothing.

Whilst the risk of fire will never totally disappear, there’s no doubt that the changes made and subsequent developments in technology have drastically reduced the chances of anything similar happening again, certainly on the London Underground.